The benefits of having an inclusive workforce that empowers all genders, races and lifestyle choices, have been acknowledged by business leaders globally. No matter the industry, businesses that closely resemble a broader society in their workforce tend to be more innovative and enjoy more successes. And yet in the UK, with equal pay laws since 1970 and three female prime ministers to date, women are still not enjoying the same rights as their male colleagues. So let’s see how companies can better support women and take a more comprehensive approach to improving gender equality within the workplace.
Understanding Gender Equality
Gender equality is realised when all genders have the same rights, whether as citizens or as employees. It’s an essential part of the journey to ensuring fairness and economic prosperity. For gender equality to succeed, preconceived ideas of gender-specific societal roles and biased differences between genders must be challenged. To put this in perspective within the talent acquisition world, people should be judged on their skill sets and abilities within their field, rather than assumptions made on physical appearance.
How women’s roles have changed in the workplace
Arguably, the First World War could be seen as the trigger for mass-employment of women in the UK. Though it is worth noting that women were employed in their millions prior to WWI, predominantly in textile and domestic industries – but still a severe minority of the workforce. WWI, and its conscription of the male population, was the catalyst to women transitioning into traditionally male-dominated industries like munitions, transport and agriculture. Successfully carrying out crucial roles in direct replacement of male counterparts was a huge step towards opening up further opportunities for women in the workplace. Looking at office-based jobs as an example, female clerks in the Civil Service alone rose from 33,000 in 1911 to over 102,000 by 1921; that’s an increase of over 200%. Fast forward to the offices of 2022, and seeing women in senior leadership roles is not a new phenomenon. However, achievements like this have been hard-won and we still have a long way to go until the gender balance we have in today’s society is reflected equally, and with true equity, in today’s workforce.
How to improve gender equality in the workplace
When considering how companies can better support women in their workforce, there are a few ways in which the majority collective can chip away at inequality. Afterall, the most fundamental way to improve gender equality in the workplace is simply a change of perspective, not just a policy of equal hiring. A broad understanding of the issues faced by women in the workplace can provide much better support, allowing everyone to thrive on a level playing field. Here are some evidence-based actions for employers to take:
1. Understand the bigger picture
Barriers to equality aren’t just confined to the walls of your office space; there are external factors that also need to be acknowledged. For example, single parents are 90% more likely to be female than male. And in co-parenting situations when a child is sick, women are 10 times more likely than men to take time off work and 5 times more likely to take the child to doctors appointments. Studies have also shown that a female caregiver is 1.5 times more likely to spend 3 or more hours a day on housework and childcare than their male counterparts. And unfortunately, due to the demands brought about by the Covid-19 lockdowns, women in senior roles are now 1.5 times more likely to consider leaving the workforce altogether.
So what can an employer do? Consider offering truly flexible and remote working policies to all your employees, regardless of gender. Historically, employers have provided female employees with more options to engage in parental duties over career duties than their male counterparts. Let’s take parental leave in the UK for example; the statutory paternity leave average is a maximum of 2 weeks paid, versus the statutory maternity leave average is a maximum of 52 weeks paid (26 ordinary leave, plus 26 weeks additional leave). Making real changes to the way your business views traditional gender-based roles will encourage your male workforce to engage more in caregiving and parental responsibilities, giving us a chance to level out the above statistics. Challenging yourself to take away the historical biases of gender roles in caregiving not only allows those with dependents a better work-life balance, but also supports women remaining in your workforce for longer, inevitably rebalancing the scales in time.
A lot of avoidable harm can be done by people with good intentions if they lack awareness. Delivering easily accessible education within your workforce can help provide that awareness, offering context on the diversity of perspectives they may not have experienced.
In addition to providing context, this education should also address how the use of some language and attitudes, whether intentional or not, carry biases that negatively impact their working environment and colleagues. And, looking to how this change will be supported, this education should also emphasise the benefits of a more inclusive workforce and provide information around steps taken by the employer, such as equal pay.
A great opportunity to focus on providing true equity in your workplace is during your hiring processes. See our article on How To Remove Gender Bias From Your Recruitment Process for more information.
3.Pay equal salary for equal work
Perhaps an obvious point, but very much a vital one. Despite having laws that stipulate that all genders should be paid the same for doing the same work, a significant pay gap is still a reality in today’s workforce. Studies show that female employees are paid an average of 10% less than their male counterparts; a harsh reality that is not just inequitable but very much illegal. Working with your HR team to identify and correct any areas of your payroll that are biased will not only ensure a fairly supported workforce, but will also keep you on the right side of the law.
4.Look out for harassment
Harassment is not always an obvious encroachment on someone’s boundaries. It is defined as a set of behaviours that make a person, or people, feel intimidated or offended. It is with noting that feeling intimidated, offended or highly uncomfortable may look different when experienced by people who process their feelings differently to yourself. That does not mean that those feelings are invalid or not felt. As of 2010, harassment in the workplace has been unlawful and should be treated both seriously and sensitively.
Also consider that, in some cases, harassment may not be reported and it is a responsibility of the employer to establish and protect a safe environment. Take a moment to study the dynamics of group meetings and evaluate if men are proving to be the loudest voices. Are women being an equal platform to speak and, more importantly, be heard? Are their ideas getting the recognition they deserve, or are male counterparts taking the credit? If you conclude that steps can be taken to improve, you can begin a sensitive but open dialogue with those involved, privately. Be considerate that the purpose of this is to amplify female voices in your workplace, not to assume or patronise based on what you evaluate as an observer.
5.Be open to opinions
Focusing on education and awareness doesn’t stop at the employees in your organisation. Everyone, no matter how liberal in your thinking, should take the time to understand your thought processes around generalisms and stereotypes; don’t be afraid to lean into your assumptions. Challenge yourself on areas of unconscious bias within your mindset – it’s ok, everyone has them, it’s what you do with them that matters. Actively seek feedback from all genders within your workplace to assess your contributions from different perspectives. Ask questions on existing processes, your colleagues’ experiences and how things can be improved. Consider setting up a community with a collective focus on providing a truly equitable and safe space to support women at work. For tips on where to start, see our post on How Companies Can Achieve An Inclusive Workforce.
The principle of workplace equality is not rocket science, but it’s sadly still an issue that requires active work. All business leaders, regardless of gender, need to look deep into their processes to identify, challenge and overcome any instances of bias – making sure to gain perspective and feedback along the way. This is not a ‘tick-box’ exercise but a growth journey, for yourself, for all employees in your organisation and for your business. Just imagine a representative workforce that can operate free from prejudice and reach its potential as a human-centric community. Equality, and real equity, benefits us all.